Finals are not to be played — they are meant to be won.
Cal rugby is wrapping up its season on a high note thanks to a breathtaking postseason run, which will culminate in the D1A National Collegiate Rugby Championship on Saturday, May 6, in Houston. The fixture will feel like deja vu for Cal as it takes on Navy, a team that narrowly defeated the blue and gold in the regular season.
Yet, a final is no ordinary game, especially for Cal rugby, who launched an up-and-down spring season in XVs. Cal clinched a ten-game winning streak in the early winter but then lost three in a row against nationally-ranked sides in March alone.
The shaky Cal team went back to work as it entered the postseason bracket as the No. 3 seed in the West region. Although the Bears dismantled Cal Poly in the first round, the away win at Saint Mary’s after overcoming a 16-point deficit was the most decisive turning point. They proved their talented squad could beat the very best teams during the road to this season’s final.
Hosting BYU in the semifinals was also far from an easy challenge, as the Bears and Cougars were tied at the intermission. Cal then broke apart the opponent’s defense in the second half and scored five tries to punch its ticket to Texas.
The Midshipmen now stand in the Bears’ path to the title. The top college rugby program in the nation remains undefeated in the 2022-2023 season at 17-0, having displayed impressive offensive performances all year. First seeded in the East, Navy handily defeated its service-academy counterpart Army and edged Lindenwood by two points.
The Bears and Midshipmen last battled in March in Annapolis, Maryland. The home team had the final say and handed a narrow loss to the then-undefeated Bears, 33-28. Cal let Navy ahead in the first half and its furious comeback was frustrated in the final possession.
Fans in Houston should expect a Cal team looking for vengeance against the Midshipmen.
The Bears will need to have built a counter to Navy’s devastating forwards and clinical kicking game — two of the main issues that the Bears were unable to contain last March. Cal also must perfect its offensive patterns, as every possession in scoring range will be its own final.
“Our team continues to work hard, demonstrating improvement,” said head coach Jack Clark via email. “This said, we still have better rugby inside us.”
This hope, to produce the best rugby possible, underscores the winning mentality that the coach of 40 years instills in his players. But Cal is also lucky to count on supremely talented players, such as vice captain Max Schumacher, who has been the team’s north star, even as the XVs have shuffled this spring.
A finalist team builds its story along what is often a nonlinear path. Even though they sometimes flirted with an unceremonious end to the season, especially during the loss-filled month of March, the Bears’ mental strength is one of the greatest foundations that the program can count on to win the title Saturday.
The “exciting proposition” that coach Clark refers to in Navy is an invitation for Cal to level up its game in its best to hope for national triumph. Regardless of the final outcome, this Cal rugby squad will have written its own story in the history books of the California rugby tradition.
Cal kicks off at 4:30 p.m. PDT at AVEVA Stadium in Houston on Saturday, May 6.